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Revealing the Hidden:

The Epiphanic Dimension of Games and Sport

Charles D. Laughlin

ABSTRACT: A biogenetic structural theory of play, games and sport is summarized. Games are shown to be a merger of play and ritual, both of the latter being genetically "wired-in" activities of the human species. The role of ritual performance in revealing the hidden, causal forces that produce phenomena is discussed. Games in many societies are the focus of this epiphanic ("manifestation of divinity") function. For example, games of chance are interpreted in many cultures as revealing divine will. Sports in modern society provide a dramatic stage for the enactment of such mythical roles as the Hero, the Princess, the Enemy, etc. Moreover, sports retains much of the power of ritual found in more traditional societies. The differences between epiphanic games in traditional societies (for example, the Jicarilla Apache relay race and the Navajo moccasin game) and modern sports are clarified, including the lack of a cosmological and a mythological frame of reference for the latter.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6, Ph: (819) 459-1121. He is the co-author of Biogenetic Structuralism (1974), The Spectrum of Ritual (1979), Extinction and Survival in Human Populations (1978), Science As Cognitive Process (1984), and Brain, Symbol and Experience (1990). He has done ethnographic fieldwork among the So of northeastern Uganda, Tibetan lamas in Nepal and India, and the Navajo in New Mexico.

With the first vision, the first contact, the first pleasure, there is initiation, that is, not the positing of a content, but the opening of a dimension that can never again be closed, the establishment of a level in terms of which every other experience will henceforth be situated. The idea is this level, this dimension. It is therefore not a de facto invisible, like an object hidden behind another, and not an absolute invisible, which would have nothing to do with the visible. Rather it is the invisible of this world, that which inhabits this world, sustains it, and renders it visible, its own and interior possibility, the Being of this being.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty,

The Visible and the Invisible


The world view of most of us is both shaped by and active in informing our individual life-world;2 that is, each person's world of immediate experience.

The life-world is the quintessence of a reality that is lived, experienced, and endured. It is, however, also a reality that is mastered by action and the reality in which -- and on which -- our action fails. Especially for the everyday life-world, it holds good that we engage in it by acting and change it by our actions. Everyday life is that province of reality in which we encounter directly, as the condition of our life, natural and social givens as pregiven realities with which we must try to cope. We must act in the everyday life-world, if we wish to keep ourselves alive. We experience everyday life essentially as the province of human practice.
(Schutz and Luckmann 1989:1)

One of the characteristics of our life-world is that we routinely experience events that require comprehension. The more dramatic of these events include such things as aging and death, the origin of things, conception and birth, destruction, disease, transpersonal experiences of one sort or another, astronomical events, seasonal cycles, malevolence, catastrophes, etc. The more subtle of these events include everyday things like planning a meal, getting to work, mowing the lawn, etc. Without comprehension, death remains a terrifying enigma and planning a meal forever beyond our capacity.

In other words, our life-world is meaningful to us. It is so thoroughly meaningful that we tend to take its elements and relations for granted as "the way the world really is." As Edmund Husserl (1977:152-153) put it, our "natural attitude" toward our own life-world is one of uncritical acceptance. We take what is given in our experience for granted and rarely seek the structures that produce those experiences. Yet much of our automatic (usually phenomenologically naive) comprehension involves hidden, often mysterious forces that relate or produce observable phenomena (Mandelbaum 1977:72, Merleau-Ponty 1968:149-155).

It is the business of consciousness to reveal both the manifest and the hidden aspects of the world before the subject. I cannot see the wind, only the artifactual movements of its passing. Yet the wind is as present to my consciousness as is its manifestations. As Merleau-Ponty (1968) notes, the sound of a piece of music or of a word is visible, but its meaning is invisible, although the invisible idea being expressed is as much present to consciousness as is the visible expression. To put it in perceptual terms, there is more to perception than the apprehension of the quale of the object.

The cognitive/perceptual operations within our nervous system that produce meaning in the life-world require that the hidden forces "behind" phenomenal events be revealed in some way to experience. These forces are not normally experienced as separate from the sensory quale or the visible aspects of events, but rather are blended in a usually unconscious, tacit unity of experience. When revealed, these previously hidden forces may be anticipated and thus become more amenable to control.

Anthropologists have found that virtually all human societies espouse a world view which, often dramatically, reveals the more important hidden forces behind events. The hidden forces are typically coded symbolically as animated, even anthropomorphized characters that play an epiphanic3 role in myth, mystery plays and other forms of ritual performance (see Turner 1969, 1982).

It is my intent in this paper to show the cultural role of games and sport in revealing the hidden forces behind events. In order to do this, I believe we must first examine how the human brain constructs its world of experience, and how this life-world is related to reality. I will construct this picture from a perspective we call biogenetic structuralism,4 which is a body of theory relating cultural, psychological and neurophysiological research. This paper continues our work on play and games reported earlier (see Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin 1990).


The life-world is a cognitive and perceptual construction produced by the nervous system, and is constrained in its nature by the internal properties of the cognizing organism. Our experience of both the external world and our own organism are essentially produced by the activities of neural models.5 These models exist as relatively enduring structures within the immensely intricate organization of the cells and fibers comprising our nervous system (Davis et al. 1988), especially those comprising the cerebral cortex.6


The course by which the nervous system comes to know about its own organism, and the environment within which the organism is ensconced, is a well ordered one from beginning to end. The neural networks comprising our knowledge and experience have their developmental origin in initial neurognostic7 structures that are already present and functioning in the cognitively competent fetus and infant (Spelke 1985, 1988a, 1988b). Neurognostic structures manifest an organization which is largely genetically determined. Although there is remarkable selectivity in the developmental reorganization of these early structures, that selectivity itself is also neurognostically regulated. Some potential organizations deteriorate, others become active, and still others remain relatively latent and undeveloped (see Changeux 1985, Edelman 1987, Varela 1979). This selectivity is one reason why there is such remarkable flexibility in cognitive adaptation to the essentially turbulent and evolving nature of the organism and the world.

The Cognized and Operational Environments

The organism and its environment are inextricably linked in an intricate dance, coupled for a lifetime in a complex process of mutual adaptation. In the process of its self-cognization, the organism becomes a relative abstraction to itself. It will to some extent produce a conceptual and imaginal abstraction of its organism from the matrix of its environment (E.J. Gibson 1969, J. Gibson 1979, Neisser 1976, Varela 1979). The organism's model of itself is defined through the emerging complexity of its own internal organization (Piaget 1971, 1985). The principal attribute of the organism's model of itself is the production and conservation of this self-organization while simultaneously addressing the demands of adaptation to events in its surround.

The entire system of neural models of self and world is self-generating and self-regulating (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974, Varela 1979, Maturana and Varela 1980; see also Piaget 1971, 1985), and comprises our cognized environment. While the cognized environment is how we know and experience our organism and our world, the system of neurological transformations that produce the cognized environment is part of the very world (our operational environment)8 within which we are embedded and to which we must adapt in order to survive. The operational environment, including our own organism, may be considered transcendental relative to our cognized environment in the sense that there is always more to learn about the operational environment, or anything within it, than can ever be known. In other words, most of reality is hidden from direct sensory experience and must be adumbrated and conceptualized or imagined in our encounter with reality. By implication, we are each of us a transcendental being that is forever beyond the grasp of either complete self-knowledge or omniscience about the world.

The cognized environment is to the operational environment as a map is to a landscape. However, the map is never static, but rather is a living, breathing map produced by transformations in the organization of living cells. At a more molecular level of organization, these transformations have their material reality in patterned coordinations, or entrainments,9 among neurons whose initial forms are neurognostic, whose eventual developmental complexity will be variable and whose evocation may or may not be environmentally triggered.

The Empirical Modification Cycle

The process by which neural models mature into an adaptive configuration relative to the operational environment is termed the empirical modification cycle, or EMC (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974: 84ff; see also Pribram 1971, Neisser 1976, Arbib 1972, Powers 1973, Gray 1982, and Varela 1979 for consonant views). The EMC is a feedforward process -- it operates in anticipation of the world it desires. This process is one by which models are tested against the operational environment by matching anticipated patterns against those experienced. The EMC is thus required for learning and for transformation of models confronting the flux and ultimately incomprehensible complexity of a transcendental world.

Behavior and the EMC

William T. Powers (1973) in his book, Behavior: The Control of Perception, has gone a long way in modelling the cybernetic function of behavior relative to the EMC by showing that, "behavior is the process by which organisms control their input sensory data. For human beings, behavior is the control of perception" (1973:xi). Behavior is a phase in the neurocognitive loop by which an object of interest is brought before the perceiving subject, and kept there as long as desired despite disturbances produced by other competing objects. It is my claim that this is as true for play behavior as for any other form of behavior.


It would be a mistake, however, to imply that the EMC operates only as a negative feedback/feedforward loop. There is also a process by which the development of models of reality is optimized. Metanoia (see Laughlin 1990) may be defined as the subprocess of the EMC by which an organism (1) intentionally enriches its operational environment for the purpose of optimizing the development of its cognized environment, and (2) loosens and expands the range of alternative structures that may eventually produce models. In other words, metanoia is an internally driven enhancement of empirical modification which both loosens the adaptational stability of models and enriches the stimuli with which the models dialogue. The operational environment may be enriched either by increasing the information about it, or by expanding its spatiotemporal range (see Renner and Rosenzweig 1987, Diamond 1988). The metanoic state may incorporate behavior, as in the case of play, or may not include behavior, as in the case of dreaming (Laughlin 1990).

Thus play behavior, as we commonly use the term, may be viewed as metanoic enrichment of the external operational environment via behavior (Laughlin 1990, Blanchard 1986). Linking play to metanoia allows us to balance our view of play with the recognition of a transcendant context internal to the organism, as well as the more commonly acknowledged Batesonian (Bateson 1972, 1979) "meta-communicational" context external to and between organisms. Metanoia labels the internal frame of reference of play, as meta-communication labels the external frame of reference of play.

Play thus involves an exercise of control on the part of the organism over the process of enriching novelty in the interests of the organism's internal drive to optimize cognitive complexity (Tipps 1981). It is methodologically significant that the external enriching activity is easily observed, but the internal loosening of adaptive constraints on neurocognitive organization is not so easily observed. Moreover, it must be said that play is not a necessary condition for the development of models or of the cognized environment as a whole. But play is a necessary condition for optimal development of models of the operational environment.

Play Plus Ritual Equals Game

Games are an amalgamation of play and ritual, both of the latter having their respective anlagen in phylogenesis.10 To game is to participate in a ritual involving play, and hence metanoia (Frederickson 1960:433). Just as play provides a "context" (Piaget 1962) or "frame" (Bateson 1972) within which activities may open-up and enrich the operational environment, gaming provides a more complex and socially routinized frame within which participants may optimize the development of socially coordinated knowledge, relationships and skills. Thus games may be considered rituals of mastery (or "models of power;" Sutton-Smith and Roberts 1970).

The institutionalization of play and play behavior may operate to guide, enhance or thwart the metanoia essential to play. Games may on the one hand increase novelty by increasing the complexity of the operational environment (say through increasing the complexity of rules, or allowing players to enact anthropomorphized hidden forces), and on the other hand may become institutionalized into activities which for some "players" are no longer playful (as happens frequently in professional sports).


The power of ritual over consciousness is not lost when it takes the form of gaming, including "sports" which is how our culture codes certain types of games. The power of ritual derives from its situation as a mediator between a society's world view and the life-world of people in the society.


The world view of most societies encountered by anthropologists exhibit the universal form of a cosmology. A cosmology is a culturally patterned and socially transmitted cognized environment which is systemic in organization, is divided into multicameral domains, and is populated with entities that may be either visible (e.g., horned toad, coyote, the sun, etc.) or invisible (e.g., souls, radiant deities, subterranean worlds, divine messengers, mythical heros, etc.) to normal perception. Furthermore, a cosmology is dynamic (i.e., it develops or evolves) through time and constitutes an organic whole.

A cosmology is often experienced as a space filled with objects and features (e.g., rocks, trees, mountains, rivers, stars, sun and moon, etc.) conceived to have both an outer (physical) and an inner (spiritual) nature. A cosmology is an account of all the significant elements and relations that make up the universe, and defines the position of an individual, the group, or all of humanity within that universe. A cosmos is a living totality which provides a frame of reference for all meaning, and the sacred source of all meaning. Not only is meaning a living reality, but so too is the cosmos a palpable, living fact of existence, made manifest in every moment of the individual's unfolding life-world.

Very important to the topic of gaming and sports is the fact that cosmologies are typically somatocentric.11 That is, the human body is conceived as a microcosm that is placed at the very center of the cosmos (Neumann 1963:41; see Burtt 1932:6 on the loss of this motif during the history of the Euroamerican world view). The body is often appropriately oriented relative to the cardinal directions of the universe. Anatomical parts such as organs and joints may signify features in the greater cosmos. The axis mundi of the world may be equated with the spinal column, and dismemberment of the body at the joints may be associated with fragmentation of cosmic relations.

A cosmology will frequently offer an explanation for the origin of the world, as well as its significant elements and relations. It may also predict the future course of the world (Eliade 1963:54-74). Explanations of matters of ultimate concern such as birth, death, the origin of people and things, disease, aging, etc. are couched in mythological terms. That is, cosmological knowledge is encoded within a set of stories with highly symbolic, even archetypal characters, features and events.

Ritual and Cosmology

A traditional cosmological world view is typically expressed in highly symbolic ritual procedures that bring various cosmological entities and events alive within the life-world of individual people. For example, the Catholic Mass is such a ritual directed at realizing the essence of the Christ through participation in the Eucharist. Rituals may be designed to evoke unusual states of mind. To this end they may incorporate so-called "driving mechanisms" that assure their efficacy in transforming consciousness (Miracle 1986, 1987, Southard, Miracle and Landwer 1989, Dunleavy and Miracle 1981, Laughlin 1989b, Laughlin et al. 1986). Driving mechanisms include such things as ingestion of psychotropic drugs, physical ordeal, rhythmic or repetitive activity (e.g., dancing), special diet or fasting, chanting and singing, wearing special costumes and masks, purification rites (e.g., sweat lodge), sleep deprivation, pulsating stimuli (e.g., flickering fire light, drumming, clapping), extraordinary concentration (e.g., meditation), painful mutilation of the body (e.g., circumcision, removal or filing of teeth, scarification), arduous pilgrimage, powerfully evocative symbols, etc.

We can better understand the power of ritual by situating it within a greater cycle of meaning that relates social procedure and individual experience (see Figure 1).







Figure 1. Ritual in the Context of the Cycle of Meaning. The cosmology as symbolically expressed through ritual leads to activity in the world that in turn leads to experiences interpreted as verifying and vivifying the cosmology.
The Epiphanic Dimension of Ritual

The cosmology, or significant aspects of it, may be expressed in ritual performances that reveal the normally hidden, causal forces behind matters of ultimate concern; forces that are considered to be real in the society's world view. This is the epiphanic dimension of ritual. Participation in the ritual, either as an actor or as a spectator, may lead to direct experiences (e.g., visions, enactments, dreams, intuitions, etc.) that reveal previously hidden aspects of the cosmos (or self, psyche, etc., depending on your theoretical stance). These experiences may be of a transpersonal nature (see Laughlin 1989a, 1990, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990) and will tend to be interpreted in terms of the cosmology. In this way, symbolic forms both "come alive" in the life-world of people and accrue meaning via the memory of direct experiences.

To this end, performance in a ritual may involve transformation of the normal form of the body -- especially of the face, as in the donning of a mask (Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988, Webber, Stephens and Laughlin 1983). For example, the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other peoples of the American southwest stage elaborate performances during which masked and costumed dancers enact the various deities described in myth (see e.g., Beck, Walters and Francisco 1990). Masked dancers on the island of Bali in the Pacific are considered to have special powers, that their actual performances may be prefaced by long hours of preparation involving diet, purification and protection rituals (McPhee 1970). The key to understanding such metamorphic rituals is to recognize the reversal of the readily visible person to the status of invisible, and of the usually invisible force (deity, spirit, ancestor, hero, etc.) to the status of visible.


The power of ritual is not lost when it takes the form of gaming. Nor is it entirely lost merely because the game is unrelated to a cosmological world view, as is the case of sports in contemporary Euroamerican society. The game nonetheless continues to be situated in a cycle of meaning, and may still incorporate many of the driving mechanisms that give cosmological rituals their efficacy (see e.g., Dunleavy and Miracle 1981, Southard, Miracle and Landwer 1989). The significance of symbolic elements within the non-cosmological game may of course be diminished, and even quite different than ones lodged within cosmological societies, but the power to effect the life-world of both participant and audience may well remain.

The Jicarilla Ceremonial Relay Race

To better understand the significance of games qua ritual as a mediator of experience, let us look briefly at their role within a cosmological cycle of meaning. Games in societies having a cosmological cycle of meaning are typically permeated with cosmological significance. Take for example the ceremonial relay race of the Jicarilla Apache (Opler 1944). The Jicarilla hold the event each fall -- never in any other season. Every young man must participate in at least one race after he has reached puberty, but before he has married. There is less concern about which side wins than about it being repeated yearly and at the proper time.

The race pits two teams of boys against each other, each representing the two kinds of food, animals and crops, and the sun and moon associated with each respectively. Each team is led by an older man who knows the ceremony and who is selected by the team. The race is supposed to occur at a sacred location and the track upon which the boys will run is renewed each year. There should be a body of water closeby which represents the place of emergence of the People from the underworld. The race track is laid out on an east-west axis and is associated with the Milky Way, the first path of the sun and moon. At each end of the track is a circular, sacred, screened compound built of cut trees placed upright in holes. Each faces the track, one with its doorway pointing east, the other west, the path of the sun and moon today.

After a great feast at noon, the boys dress in their best clothes and gather at their respective compounds ("hogans") at each end of the track. Each team has its drum, one decorated with the sign of the sun, the other with the sign of the moon. Each team rides out on horseback, led by their pennant and drum, to an appropriate place and stages try-outs for the race. Each picks a first and second fastest man. They then return to the track and hold an elaborate dance ceremony in which each team dances to the opposite team's compound and back. That night there is another feast and dance for the boys, but the older ritualists gather at the compounds to sing songs, sometimes all night long, to assure their success the next day -- success in part related to obtaining plenty of foods of the two kinds in the year to come.

On the morning of the race, many ritual activities are carried out in the sacred compounds involving such things as burning sunflower stalks, making paint, preparing bird feathers, etc. A sandpainting is made depicting the sun and moon, some of the fastest birds, and other cosmological motifs. The boys strip and have their bodies decorated with feathers, paint and yucca strips. A lot of praying and singing occurs. The race is preceded by ritual dancing and a "race" (they do not actually compete with each other) by four old men who are said to be "making a path" for the boys. Then the boys race in earnest, one after the other beginning with the first and second fastest boys in the tryouts. Umpires from each side keep order and determine who is ahead. Some boys run several times, others only once.

After the race is done, there is more dancing and distribution of foods of both kinds and the boys dance back to their compounds where there is still more dancing and singing. The boys then put on their clothes and yet another feast occurs followed by horse racing and a war dance. At sundown everyone goes home to eat and then they have a round dance that may last all night.

Chance and the Navajo Moccasin Game

Nowhere is the difference between traditional cosmological and modern Euroamerican non-cosmological understanding of games more evident than in the epiphanic role of so-called "games of chance." Some of the best work done so far on the cross-cultural distribution of games -- and in particular, games of chance -- has been done by John Roberts and Brian Sutton-Smith and their associates (see Roberts and Sutton-Smith 1962, Berry and Roberts 1972 for summaries of their approach). Three types of games are defined in their model: games of physical skill, games of strategy and games of chance. The latter type is defined as a game where winning is determined solely by guessing or some mechanism (like dice) for randomizing outcomes. And herein lies a crucial cultural difference: In most traditional societies, "chance" outcomes are not interpreted as a process of randomization as we are inclined to do, but rather as the result of externalization of choice and decision-making to the will of normally hidden cosmic forces (i.e., gods, ancestors, etc.; see Laughlin and McManus 1982:60-61). And societies practising games of chance tend to be those facing significant uncertainty in their environment (Berry and Roberts 1972).

An excellent example of a game of chance is the keshjee', or moccasin game of the Navajo -- an Apachean society living in the American Southwest and historically related to the Jicarilla. Like the Jicarilla relay race, the Navajo moccasin game must occur in its proper season and at the right time of day, in this case in the winter and only at night (Matthews 1889). The game takes place in a large hogan where people gather and form two sides. Each player has brought some valuables to put into the kitty and the side that wins all 102 counters made from leaves of the yucca plant take the pot. The sides take opposite positions in the hogan. A number of moccasins are buried in the sand, toe-first and filled with sand. After a screen is put up, a round pebble is hidden by one side in one of the moccasins. After lowering the screen, the other side sends one of their number forward to choose which moccasin holds the pebble. The selected moccasin is hit with a stick, and then is dug up to see if it holds the pebble. If the right moccasin is selected, the guessing side takes their turn as hiders and they collect some of the yucca leaf counters. If the guess is wrong, the previous hiders take some counters and get to hide the pebble again.

A large number of moccasin game songs are sung. They are considered essential to success as they evoke the cosmic entities that originated the game. In mythological time there existed a more or less even distribution of nocturnal (moon loving) and diurnal (sun loving) animals. The nocturnal animals wished for day-long night and the diurnal animals wanted day-long sunshine. They finally held a meeting at twilight to discuss the matter and they decided they would play a game to settle the issue once and for all. The game was the moccasin game and if the nocturnal (lunar) animals won, the sun would cease to shine, and if the diurnal (solar) animals won, it would remain daylight all the time. They sang the songs that the Navajo sing today and the game got under way. Some of the Holy People (gods) joined each side and crafty Coyote switched back and forth depending on which side appeared to be winning. There was a lot of cheating back and forth, but when dawn broke, neither side had won, so the original alternation of day and night continued unchanged.

The Navajo moccasin game, like many such "games of chance" found cross-culturally, are more like enjoyable rituals of divination than they are like the kind of randomized games of chance we find in Euroamerican cultures. In both the Jicarilla race and the Navajo moccasin game, the rituals enact and bring alive the polarities and tensions ubiquitous to cosmic relations. The cosmos is expressed in the game in microcosm. The normally hidden forces of the cosmos are seen in the guise of players and are given voice in song. What happens during the competition is interpreted relative to the interplay of cosmic forces that produce the circadian and seasonal cycles and the balance and abundance of food and wealth. Both games operate as "rites of intensification" (Chapple and Coon 1942) and the Jicarilla race operates as a "rite of passage" as well (Gennep 1960).

Games and Sports in Non-Cosmological Societies

The intimate link between epiphanic games and a cosmological world view has, of course, been broken in modern Euroamerican culture. The traditional cycle of meaning that operates to integrate gaming activity with other ritual activity within a single, all-inclusive comprehension of the universe has been fragmented. The role of science in producing this fragmentation of knowledge and activity is not inconsiderable (see Burtt 1932, Toulmin 1982). Because science has so completely usurped the role of traditional cosmology in our society, our view of the universe is no longer whole, is no longer somatocentric, is no longer considered responsive to the human condition, and is no longer inhabited by normally hidden, but efficacious divinity. Because we live in a materialistic, industrialized and bureaucratised society, our games and sports are normally relegated to forms of recreation and entertainment -- as frivolous "play" that is erroneously, but pervasively dichotomized by our culture with important "work" (see Blanchard 1983, 1986, Schwartzman 1977: 29, 1978:5, Stevens 1980 on this issue).

And yet, despite this historical rending of games and sports from their traditional cosmological moorings, they retain as rituals much of their power to transform consciousness in players and participants. This is because many of the drivers found in traditional rituals remain intact and continue to be efficacious. This is especially obvious in public sports events. Teams both represent communities (e.g., the Chicago Bears) and retain totemic associations with nature; that is, they are symbolically identified with natural forces like swift birds, courageous carnivores, national plants and animals in nature (e.g., the Cardinals, the Bears, the Colts, the Maple Leafs, etc.).

Players in sports events are also players in the dramatic sense in that they enact archetypal characters like the Hero, the Princess and the Enemy. Projection of archetypal material onto players continues to operate even though the greater cosmological context of this drama has been lost (Campbell 1949), and this kind of projection transforms the game into a performance. Without getting into theoretical explanations of the origins of archetypal material (see Jung 1968), players are perceived in "bigger than life," heroic dimensions, both by spectators and by themselves. They are resplendently and distinctively costumed, carry the symbol of the team totem (e.g., a Blue Jay on the cap), are perceived to possess unusual physical, mental and moral qualities, and to exhibit seemingly superhuman physical prowess, stamina, courage and judgement.

Games are carried out in special, virtually sacred spaces (e.g., arenas, parks, domes, etc.). There is a sense of festivity about the events, marked by special foods (hot dogs, popcorn, beer, etc.) and distinctive chanting and other rhythmic activity (e.g., cheer leaders). Spectators often enrich their experience by attaining special knowledge of the rules, the past history of the teams and players, and the relevance of the outcome of the event to the overall course of the season.

Players and athletes are in fact notoriously "superstitious." What this means is that many players may tacitly recognize models of causation that are at variance from and unsupported by the general world view of their society. Whereas the random outcome view of "chance" predominates in the scientifically informed Euroamerican world view, players may sense a hidden causation that may influence the outcome in games, especially games of chance. Winning in games of chance may require that the player influence these hidden forces by ritual acts and invocations. Success in sports may involve the same kind of ritualized acts and invocations, as when the batter approaches the plate, or the free-thrower the net in exactly the same way and with the same gestures and invocations.

The most profound effects of sport qua ritual, of course, are those that transform the state of consciousness of the player. Participation in games and sports usually involves play in the sense described earlier. Participation may even lead to transpersonal experiences. For example, many sports lead to the "flow" experience (see Csikskentmihalyi 1975). Long distance runners, motocross racers, and other athletes report the routine occurrence of an energized state in which all pain is gone, one feels in touch with superhuman forces, consciousness is crystal clear, free of discursive thought and blissful. Major league pitchers that I and others have interviewed report a variation of this experience. They say they enter a state of consciousness they term being "on the edge," a state that is the consequence of extraordinary concentration and physical flow.


The crucial difference between the experiences that arise in modern sports qua ritual, and those that arise during traditional rituals, is the interpretive frame in which the players' and spectators' life-worlds are lodged. Remember, the drive in human beings is to make their life-worlds meaningful, regardless of their cultural background. All experiences are embedded within a life-world made meaningful by at least partial reference to the society's cycle of meaning. For some players the transpersonal experiences that arise during sports activities are given a religious interpretation. Such interpretations, however, tend to be individualistic, specific to the player's personal history, and not shared by everyone participating in the game, as is normally the case among traditional societies. More often these experiences arise in an interpretive vacuum. That is, the experiences are interpreted only within the cycle of meaning of the game, itself, or athletics in general. There is little interpretive articulation between the experiences that arise during the game and either the rest of life-world, or the total world view of the society.

In traditional societies, the experience of gaming is typically interpreted as epiphany. That is, the experience of extraordinary levels of psychic energy, seemingly superhuman physical prowess, and transpersonal transformations of consciousness are viewed as the manifestations of usually hidden divine forces. A biogenetic structural explanation of this interpretive link suggests that participation in play and in games of all kinds involves metanoia and thus may evoke neurognostic structures within the body that are indeed usually hidden within the normal life-world of people. These structures include potential entrainments of autonomic, endocrine, affective, perceptual and cognitive-intentional neural networks that operate within the cognized environment of people only during unusual circumstances. It is well to always remember the feedback relationship between behavior and perception modeled above. Extraordinary behaviors may produce extraordinary perceptions, and perhaps extraordinary states of consciousness evoked by the perceptions

Theoretically at least, and given the limitations imposed upon experience by personal developmental history and environmental conditions, a perfectly functional cosmological world view is one that is able to account for all possible life-world experiences, no matter how extraordinary. But in our society, players enter the game or sport with a cognized environment that tends to interpretively fragment their adventures within the game from life experiences outside the game. However meaningful may experiences be within the game, they rarely inform the players and spectators about the hidden forces at play in the universe at large. The epiphanic dimension of games and sports is quite real for both players and spectators, yet the interpretive frame for relating the epiphanic dimension of play to a dynamic cosmos has been lost (see Granskog elsewhere in this issue for an example). Metanoic phases of the EMC that would inform the cognized environment of traditional peoples about the hidden forces of the cosmos are severely circumscribed in Euroamerican gaming. The curious irony is that the sense of epiphany that arises during games and sports is perhaps the closest that many people in our society ever get to the full experience of cosmic epiphany so fundamental to traditional cosmological world views and religions.


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1 This paper was given at the annual meetings of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Milwaukee, WI, November 6-9, 1991. I wish to thank Dr. Andrew Miracle for suggesting I write this paper. I am also indebted to my friend and colleague, John McManus for much of what little understanding of sports that I can claim.

2 The concept of the life-world, or Lebenswelt, originates with the last major work of Edmund Husserl (1970:103-189), and was later developed in works by Merleau-Ponty (1964), and Schutz (Schutz and Luckmann 1973, 1989; see Spiegelberg 1982:144).

3 The word "epiphany" specifically refers in theology to the manifestation of Christ as the Magi, but more generally to the "appearance or manifestation of a divine or superhuman being."

4 Over the years I have worked with a group that has developed a body of theory we call biogenetic structuralism and which explains the relationships among neurological structures, consciousness and culture; see d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979, Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990, and Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984.

5When we speak of a model, we do not refer either to an ideal type or a description of a theory. A model is an actual organization of tissue the function of which is to constitute some aspect or aspects of the world before the mind (see Davis et al. 1988).

6The cortex is the phylogenetically newest part of the nervous system and forms a corrugated layer of tissue on the top of the brain. We agree with Doty (1975) that conscious processing is largely a cortical function.

7The concept of neurognosis is complex and refers to the essential genetical component producing universal patterns of neural activity, and the experiential and behavioural concomitants of that activity; see Laughlin and d'Aquili (1974: Chapter 5), Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili (1990: Chapter 2) and d'Aquili et al. (1979: 8ff).

8We borrowed the concepts of cognized and operational environments from Rappaport (1968), but have changed their meaning substantially from his usage. For further elaboration of these concepts, see Laughlin and Brady (1978: 6), d'Aquili et al. (1979: 12ff), Rubinstein et al. (1984: 21ff), and Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili (1990).

9"Entrainment" is a technical term in neurophysiology that means the linking of neural systems into larger configurations by way of dendritic-axonic-synaptic and endocrinological interconnections (see Hebb 1949, Davis et al. 1988). Entrainments may be momentary or enduring. A change in a pattern of entrainment is termed "re-entrainment."

10A number of researchers have seen the relationship between play and ritual (see e.g., Frederickson 1960:433, Bourguignon 1979, Cheska 1978, Norbeck 1979, Kilmer 1977, Schwartzman 1978:124-125, Riner 1978, Fox 1980, Miracle 1986, n.d., Southard, Miracle and Landwer 1989, Dunleavy and Miracle 1981, Turner 1983).

11 I am indebted to Dr. George MacDonald for this concept.

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